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Federal Agency To Mail AIDS Brochure to All Households

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WASHINGTON--Federal health officials last week unveiled a candid brochure on the AIDS virus that will be mailed to every household in the nation over the next six weeks.

The unprecedented mass mailing is a focal point of the government's $315-million effort to educate the public about acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"This is ... the first time the federal government has attempted to contact virtually every resident, directly by mail, regarding a public-health crisis,'' said Secretary of Health and Human Services Otis R. Bowen.

Dr. Bowen released the new mailer, titled "Understanding AIDS,'' during a May 4 press conference here.

Written at a 7th-grade reading level, the glossy, blue-and-white brochure contains information on the deadly disease, how it is contracted, and ways to prevent it.

It flatly dispels current myths about AIDS, such as that the disease may be contracted from a mosquito bite, through casual classroom contact, or by swimming in the same pool with an infected person.

It also offers advice on talking to children about the disease, and Dr. James O. Mason, director of the Centers for Disease Control, makes a plea for compassion toward those afflicted with it.

The pamphlet was intensively reviewed and edited by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, whose picture appears on the cover. And it reflects the characteristically frank--and sometimes controversial--manner in which he has publicly discussed AIDS.

It addresses, for example, anal intercourse and the health risks associated with such behavior. And a section on condoms advises buying latex prophylactics--rather than those made from natural materials--and recommends using a spermicide along with them for added protection.

"Some of the issues involved in this brochure may not be things you are used to discussing openly,'' Dr. Koop warns in the introduction.

"I can easily understand that,'' he adds. "But now you must discuss them.''

Congressional Reaction

The mailing was ordered by the Congress in December.

The Congressional action also stipulated that the publication should be prepared without approval from the White House or any other non-health-related federal agency. Some federal lawmakers last year claimed that such "outside review''--particularly on the part of the Education Department--had contributed to a long delay in publishing classroom guidelines for AIDS education.

Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat and a leader of the drive to mandate the mailing, last week offered both praise and criticism for the mailing effort.

"At long last,'' he said, "there is information that the federal government will send to Americans about the epidemic.''

"The mailer does, however, come years after a reasonable American would have expected it,'' he continued. "Other nations, including the conservative Thatcher administration in Britain, sent out such materials two years ago.''

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who in the past has differed with Dr. Koop over the need for teaching about condoms in classroom AIDS education, declined to comment on the new publication.

The Public Health Service has printed 110 million copies of the brochure in English and 4 million copies in Spanish. It will be mailed to 107 million households across the country between May 24 and June 30 at a total cost of $17 million.

In addition, a number of national organizations, including the National Education Association, have obtained copies of the guide to distribute to their members.

To publicize the mailing, federal health officials are also sending public-service announcements to the major television networks.

More than 1,000 operators are also being added to the toll-free national AIDS hotline to handle the barrage of questions that are expected to result from the mailing.

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